The area of England designated as a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ) is to increase significantly under the government’s new Nitrates Action Programme, announced by junior DEFRA minister Phil Woolas on Monday (21 July).

Under the plan NVZs will, from 2009, affect almost 70% of the country, compared with 55% at present.

But many of the conditions to be imposed on farmers in those areas are less onerous than initially feared.

For example, the original plan envisaged that beef and dairy farmers would have to provide five months slurry storage capacity, and pig and poultry producers six months, burdening the industry with a massive cost.

Investment cost

But the new NAP allows farmers to link their storage to their actual need. So if cows are only kept in for two-to-three months of the year, the farm will only need around three months worth of slurry storage.

To help farmers meet the investment cost, Mr Woolas also explained that tax allowances on capital expenditure of up to £50,000 a year on slurry stores would be available.

“Agriculture is responsible for around 60% of nitrate pollution in water, and there are pressing reasons for reducing that,” he said. “At the same time we recognise that this places responsibilities, and costs, on farmers.”

The periods of the year during which farmers will be banned from spreading slurry and manure have also been reined in. Originally DEFRA proposed eight different closed periods, depending on soil type and rainfall. This has been cut to four.

Organic nitrogen

DEFRA has also agreed to apply for a derogation from Brussels on the level of organic nitrogen that can be applied to pasture during the course of a year.

If successful, this will allow farmers to spread up to 250kgN/ha/year, compared with the basic 170kgN/ha/year set out in the Nitrates Directive.

For arable farmers, the “big win” is that DEFRA has dropped the proposed requirement for all arable land to have a cover crop over the winter months.

This would have played havoc with spring sown crops such as vining peas, potatoes and brassicas.